Polish furniture industry – roots and present day 27 Jul 2020

Poland is a serious player in the furniture industry – in 2019 we ranked 6th in the world in terms of the value of manufactured furniture, and 2nd in the world (and 1st in Europe) in terms of export value. However, Polish furniture doesn’t only stand out due to its production scale – its leading position would not have been possible if it had not been for the excellent craft traditions, wonderful designs created over the last 100 years and the people behind them. Today, this heritage is the fuel driving the success of Polish manufacturers, a source of inspiration and a search pool for those creating the increasingly recognizable, iconic Polish furniture.

The beginnings of modern Polish furniture are inextricably linked to the emergence of an independent Polish state in 1918. The construction of the young state in the interwar period bore wonderful fruit in many areas: art, architecture, literature, but also design. The curator of the design department of the National Museum in Warsaw Anna Maga points out i.a. the following designs as outstanding examples from that period – Jan Kurzątkowski’s “Feather” chairs and furniture created as part of a public works contract, e.g. furnishings of the Ministry of Religion and Public Education building designed by Wojciech Jastrzębowski and executed by the Ład Cooperative, or furnishings of the Castle of President in Wisła, designed by his architects: Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, Andrzej Pronaszka and Włodzimierz Padlewski. The former, according to Anna Maga, ‘manifest the ever current ideals, so that beauty is captured in the simplicity of form derived from the construction and remaining in harmony with the material’, and subtly originate from native handicrafts. The latter clearly referred to the Bauhaus inspirations – a modernist, supranational style – and fell within the European avant-garde of those times. Today, this period in the history of Polish design still strongly appeals to designers. Maja Ganszyniec, one of the most recognized and respected contemporary Polish designers, says the following about her own search for Polish material identity: ‘In my trips into the past I’m searching for universal, simple and sometimes very basic things, but they need to feel current to me in terms of today and tomorrow. These include natural, local materials, techniques, coloring – everything that doesn’t pose as “foreign – better”. I am looking for what can be called ours, something authentic for this part of Europe.’

Polish mid-century

Today, Polish interiors reflect a huge fascination with furniture from the “mid-century” period. And not without reason, as it was a time of dynamic changes in Polish art and design, when designers, following the then-current trends, made attempts to create furniture characterized by organic forms as well as experiment with modern materials. At that time, such icons of Polish furniture as Roman Modzelewski’s RM58 armchair or Aleksander Kuczma’s chair were created. This is how Michał Woch, co-owner of the Vzór company which successfully reissued the Modzelewski armchair and other pieces of furniture from the 1950s, explains the success of his brand: ‘The design of this era is universal not only because of its timeless character, but also aesthetics – these types of projects resonate with people all over the world. Having such designs in the collection is a good starting point for development. Of course, it is still necessary to ensure excellent workmanship, appropriate distribution and smooth customer service. The combination of all these elements has allowed us to develop sales on foreign markets. We currently offer our products in 23 countries, including Australia, New Zealand, China, the USA and Canada. Foreign sales amount to ca. 70% of the total.’

Plywood and the rest

Much like the Eames in the United States or Alvar Aalto and Hans Wegner in Scandinavia, in the mid-twentieth century Poles also created many outstanding designs based on plywood – cheap, accessible and easy to process material. Designs by Jan Kurzątkowski, Maria Chomentowska or Teresa Kruszewska (the Tulip armchair created by the latter has also been given second life this year by Fameg), surprise with ingenuity, lightness and original forms. The mid-twentieth century also had its market hits: the 366 chair designed by Józef Chierowski as well as a light mobile bookcase, commonly called the Kowalski wall unit after the names of its designers, Bogusława and Czesław Kowalski. Both are breaking popularity records in the vintage furniture market today, the 366 armchair having been re-introduced to the market. According to Michał Woch, this period in the history of Polish furniture still conceals many treasures worth discovering: ‘In Poland of the post-war years, the creativity of artists and designers found no fertile ground. The centrally controlled industry and market didn’t make for a particularly grateful recipient of bold or innovative solutions. Today, we are now building on top of that – we can draw on the creativity of old masters and show the world the true potential of their ideas.’

Boldly into the 21st century

Talking about key moments in the history of Polish furniture, Anna Maga also draws attention to the increasing aesthetics and functional quality of Polish furniture of the last two decades: ‘There are more and more examples of successful, long-term cooperation between designers and industry and more and more real effects of this cooperation, i.e. furniture that works and is no longer simply eye-catching images that attract customers, but real, well-selling products.’ It is difficult to disagree with this statement, especially since Poland has no shortage of companies and designers who are with no complexes conquering international markets. Those certainly include Oskar Zięta, creator of the Plopp stool, who can safely be called an icon not only of Polish, but also of global design. This metal piece of furniture made using the original FiDU technology can be found in interiors around the world, in museum collections and at design exhibitions. According to the author, PLOPP deserves the name of an iconic design due to its defiance and surprising form: ‘PLOPP is living proof of going against the tide, contrary to the opinions that the stool will not be functional (it turned out to be not only functional, but also very durable). At first glance PLOPP seems to be plastic and delicate, although it is made of steel. It does have a toy form, but also titanic strength.’

Polish and European

When asked about what he would recommend to Americans who want to familiarize themselves with Polish furniture better, director of the office of the Polish Chamber of Commerce of Furniture Manufacturers Michał Strzelecki firstly recommends a visit to the High Point fair: ‘This year for the first time in history Polish furniture will be presented at the High Point market. The Polish showroom will showcase products from the biggest Polish companies, as well as several smaller brands and designers whose work represents the greatest qualities of Polish furniture: quality, creativity, attention to detail and original design in no way inferior to the achievements from other European countries.’ This last aspect is emphasized by Tomek Rygalik, one of the most famous Polish designers, whose portfolio includes designs for such brands as Moroso, Ghidini, Cappellini, Paged and Profim. When asked about the features of Polish furniture that may be attractive to American customers, he replies: ‘As a European Union country, we are relaying on the excellent and decades-long reputation and image of products from Western Europe on the American market. European design in the United States is associated with high-end, sophisticated, premium products. Our design is more and more deserving of this reputation.’ Maja Ganszyniec adds that Polish products can confidently compete on international markets: ‘We are still competitive in terms of prices, so a well-designed, well-made product in line with foreign brand standards is and will remain attractive.’

History and present day

Those interested in the history of Polish furniture should make a visit to the National Museum in Warsaw and familiarize themselves with the multimedia English-language guide prepared last year by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, responsible for the international promotion of Polish culture. The most recommended event lending insight into Polish furniture industry is the annual trade fair in Poznań – Meble Polska and Arena Design. Next edition is planned for February 23-26, 2021.